If Bill McGee’s career as an R&B sideman had gone differently, he probably wouldn’t have been a music teacher in the 1980s.
And that would’ve left a teenage D’Angelo without guidance, a high school without a talent show that remains an unmatched tradition, and most important, hundreds of Richmond youth without exposure to higher education.
But starting out, McGee’s goal wasn’t to stand in front of a blackboard. He was a trumpet player with dreams of making it big.
“I didn’t want to be a teacher, I wanted to be a musician,” the 65-year-old says. “I wanted to be a rock star doll baby.”
He came close. At 17, McGee joined a funk band called Hellaphenalia, which scored some R&B hits later when it was known as Brick. But by then, McGee had left the group. He reluctantly agreed to back a young female singer, along with members from the funk and disco band Trussel.
“She was a nappy-headed, little skinny child, 90 pounds, but she had the voice of grown woman,” McGee says. “That was, of course, Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King.”
King grew into her voice and became a force on the R&B charts for the next 10 years, with such hits as “Shame,” “Love Come Down” and “Betcha She Don’t Love You.” But McGee and the band were replaced. Trussel weathered that setback and landed a deal with Elektra Records in 1979 off the popularity of the band’s infectious funk single, “Love Injection.”
“It moved up the charts to the point that it became a big hit in New York and some other cities,” McGee recalls, noting that a particular audience helped propel the song. “The gay community picked it up and what everybody thought ‘Love Injection’ meant. ... The gay community was looking at in whole different way.”
Its first release was its last. The group wasn’t happy with its label, management or the album cover. McGee infers that the label didn’t want black faces on the cover from its urging the band to focus on “crossover appeal.” So instead they got two butterflies getting busy on a pinkish background.
After his band dissolved, McGee began teaching music at Richmond’s John F. Kennedy High School, where he created an annual talent show. It earned a reputation for being professional and competitive, which singer D’Angelo, then part of an act called Precise, recalls when speaking about his beginnings in a recent documentary, “Finding the Funk.”
The singer returned to the talent show in 1994 to perform his hit “Brown Sugar.”
Other former contestants include DJ Lonnie B and rappers Danja Mowf and Mad Skillz.
But McGee says that showcasing young talent wasn’t the true purpose.
“It was a reason for the talent show,” McGee says, and takes a breath before explaining how it all got started. It’s a story he doesn’t share often and one that he can’t tell without long pauses and deep sighs.
He recalls offering to pick up some of his students, who rode two buses to get to weekend events, at Virginia Union University. They agreed, but there was a problem. None of the kids knew where the university was located.
“I stopped in my tracks,” he says. “If these kids have not been to the college campus in their city ... They’ve never been anywhere! They don’t even know what a college campus looks like!”
McGee led annual tours that took students to historically black colleges in Alabama, Maryland and Florida. The trips were funded by the talent show, and he estimates that a student who went on the trips for all of their four years of high school may have visited 25 colleges.
“These kids,” he says -- “they will tell you that they would not have gone to college had it not been for those trips. Some of them [today] have their masters.”
Lonnie B., a local DJ, says that McGee served as a father figure during his early days in the music industry.
“I’m proud of Dollar Bill,” he says. “He saved a lot of lives, man. He’s always been a mentor to me.”
Some of those former students recently held a banquet for McGee. The band that backed most of the talent show acts, the K Band, reunited.
“It was just like the most beautiful thing,” McGee says. “They wanted me to smell my roses before it was too late.”
Since his retirement from education, McGee’s focus has returned to music. He recently put out his fourth CD, “Still Bill,” on his 804Jazz label. McGee says the album came about after a single he released to radio was warmly received. A song from it recently hit No. 18 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz chart.
“I decided I need to hurry up and do an album,” he says.
McGee may not be doing any shows to support the CD, because he’s recovering from recent surgery. The banquet and some down time have given him a chance to reflect.
He’s been a mentor, a father figure, an educator, a producer and a musician. But it’s clear how he really wants to be remembered.
“I undoubtedly want to be known as a teacher first,” he says. “All of that other stuff comes second. The job is to help people get it right, man. That’s what the gift of teaching is. You want the people that you’re around and care about to get it right.” S